The Port of New Bedford is one of the oldest communities in the United States. Lying on the northern shores of Buzzards Bay, it is about 87 kilometers south of the Port of Boston, about 20 kilometers east of the Port of Falls River, and about 26 kilometers west-southwest of the Cape Cod Canal in Massachusetts. In 2000, the Port of New Bedford was home to almost 94 thousand people, and over 175 thousand lived in the metropolitan area.
Until 1996 when actions to reduce over-fishing were implemented, commercial fishing was the mainstay of the local Port of New Bedford economy. While fishing continues to be big business for the area, manufacturing and healthcare are the major industries today. The three largest employers in the Port of New Bedford are the Southcoast Hospitals Group, Titleist (golf-related products), and Riverside Manufacturing (apparel). Tourism is a growing part of the local economy, with visitors coming to the local fairs and festivals and to learn about the historic whaling industry.
Prior to the 17th Century, the areas that are today southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island were home to Wampanoag settlements, indigenous peoples who inhabited the lands around the Acushnet River. In 1602, Bartholomew Gosnold landed on Cuttyhunk Island to explore Cape Cod and the surrounding area.
In 1652, colonists from Plymouth came to settle the Port of New Bedford, which was then part of Dartmouth. By 1760, a fishing community was established there, and by 1765, it was a whaling port and ship-building center. The first ship, the Dartmouth, was launched from the Port of New Bedford in 1767. The Dartmouth was one of the ships involved in the famous 1773 Boston Tea Party.
During the American Revolution, American privateers used the Port of New Bedford's deep-water harbor as a base, bringing a British attack in 1778. The town recovered quickly, and it was incorporated in 1787 as New Bedford. Throughout the 18th Century, whaling merchants were attracted to the Port of New Bedford, and it became an important whaling center and foreign trade center in New England.
In 1800, the citizens of the Port of New Bedford were primarily Protestants with English, Scottish, and Welsh ancestors. During early 19th Century, a new wave of Irish immigrants brought change to the formerly uniform culture, building Catholic schools and churches. In 1838, a runaway slave settled in New Bedford. Frederick Douglass then became a famous abolitionist and major figure in American history.
Later, Portuguese immigrants were attracted to the Port of New Bedford's whaling industry. People from the Azores, Cape Verde, and Madeira built a Portuguese community within the Port of New Bedford. French-Canadians and several Jewish families from Eastern Europe moved to the town at the same time, building the 1877 Church of the Sacred Heart. In the early 20th Century, Polish-Americans arrived. By the beginning of World War I, the Port of New Bedford was a town of many diverse cultures.
By the early 19th Century, the Port of New Bedford was one of the leading whaling ports in the world. In 1848, Lewis Temple, a Port of New Bedford African-American resident, invented a new type of harpoon that revolutionized the whaling industry, bringing the city into new prominence with significant control over whaling products used around the world. It soon became one of the richest cities in the world. More than half of the United States' whaling fleet of over 700 vessels was registered at the Port of New Bedford, which played a prominent role in Herman Melville's Moby Dick.
When the 1849 California Gold Rush started out west, many whalers abandoned the industry to seek their fortunes. In the 1840s, the United States' first petroleum fuel refinery was established in the Port of New Bedford to handle crude oil from Pennsylvania. By 1859, petroleum had overtaken whale oil, and the whaling industry began to fail.
In 1871, 22 whalers from the Port of New Bedford were lost off the coast of Alaska. The Whaling Disaster of 1871 was news worldwide. The industry continued to shrink, and the United States' largest whaling company, J & WR Wing Company, sent out its last whaleship in 1914. The Port of New Bedford whaling industry came to a close with the last whaling expedition in 1925.
With the decline in the whaling industry, the Port of New Bedford began to manufacture cotton fabric, and the textiles industry became a new contributor to the struggling local economy in the late 1800s. The New Bedford Textile School opened in the 1890s, bringing new prosperity to the town. At its height, the textile industry had 32 cotton-manufacturing companies with textile factories that employed more than 30 thousand people in the Port of New Bedford area.
When the textile industry moved to the Southeastern United States in the 1920s, the local economy took another step backward. Then the Great Depression hit, and the Port of New Bedford fell on hard times. In the 1970s, tool and die factories also began to leave the area.
Despite the disappearance of the whaling industry, commercial fishing was important to the Port of New Bedford economy into the 1990s when measures were taken to limit over-fishing in the Georges Bank waters. These actions devastated the area's commercial fishing industry. While fishing remains important, manufacturing and commercial activities are the base today's Port of New Bedford economy. Tourism is also of increasing importance.
The modern Port of New Bedford has a diverse economy. By the early 21st Century, the largest economic sector in the Port of New Bedford was services, followed by wholesale trade and manufacturing. The biggest employers in the area are the health services, restaurants and bars, wholesale outlets, food stores, and social services. Manufactured products include machinery and electrical equipment, textiles and clothing, rubber goods, golf balls and equipment, photographic supplies, and metal goods. The Port of New Bedford continues to be an important fishing port.